Heavy rockers Nickelback have enjoyed amazing success with their multi-platinum album Silver Side Up. Frontman Chad Kroeger is not only their main songwriter, but also plays an active role in production and looks after an expanding business empire.
"I can play and sing anything I write really well, but I don't consider myself to be great in either department," says Chad Kroeger. "Whenever I'm in a room with a bunch of singers who I think are better than I am, I'll call myself a guitar player, and whenever I'm in a room with a bunch of guitarists I'll call myself a singer... and when I'm in a room with both, I'll call myself a songwriter."
What about when he's in a room with all three?
"Well, then I'll let them all know that I can drink them under the table!"
One thing that Kroeger doesn't lack is self-confidence. As the lead singer/songwriter/guitarist in the ultra-successful Canadian Metallica-meets-Nirvana rock outfit Nickelback, he's enjoyed a pretty phenomenal couple of years, and his career thus far is an object lesson in breaking through in the competitive American music business. Songwriting talent is one thing, but Kroeger clearly combines this with a keen business sense and a highly focused approach to recording.
Having taught himself to play guitar at the age of 13, Kroeger was thrown into a juvenile detention centre the following year for continually breaking into his junior high school. (I would have thought he'd be breaking out, but then teen deliquency can manifest itself in mysterious ways.) Eventually he was reinstated, and after finishing high school Kroeger began touring during the early '90s as the lead guitarist in a covers band. Also featuring his older brother Mike on bass and Ryan Peake on guitar, this outfit performed numbers by likes of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Eventually the covers band split up, before Kroeger convinced his brother, their cousin Brandon (drums), and Ryan Peake to enter a Vancouver studio and record a number of songs that he'd written. This endeavour resulted in the seven-song Hesher demo and, subsequently, the Curb album which was released in 1997 on the band's own label and supported by plenty of airtime on Canadian radio and concert dates throughout North America. (The band's name was apparently inspired by Mike Kroeger's experience as a cashier at Starbucks — when customers regularly handed over $1.50 for a coffee that cost $1.45, he'd have to give them... yes, a nickel back.)
Several changes of drummer led to Ryan Videkal permanently assuming the role, and shortly after the band recorded their second album, The State, a deal was signed with EMI Canada and heavy metal label Roadrunner in the USA. Released in America in March of 2000, The State proved to be Nickelback's breakthrough, with both 'Breathe' and 'Leader Of Men' going top 10 on the mainstream rock charts. Thereafter, while the band built their following via a heavy touring schedule, sharing the stage with likes of Creed, Silverchair and Everclear, they also road-tested many of the songs for their next album, Silver Side Up, which climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 2001. In 2002, Chad Kroeger also enjoyed a transatlantic hit with 'Hero', a collaboration with Saliva vocalist Josey Scott that was lifted from the soundtrack to the movie Spiderman.
Songwriting (And Golf)
While he confesses to having average ability as both a singer and a guitarist, Kroeger has no such apprehensions when discussing his compositional talents. I asked him to detail the songwriting process which has produced so many hits. He's been a songwriter since the age of 16, and now looks back fondly on his first effort in this regard. "It was a great song and someday I'm going to pull it out," he says. "I'm sure the first song I ever wrote could be a hit.
"I pride myself on the ability to write something that can get stuck in people's heads. I always start by jamming a riff on the guitar and humming different melody lines, and once I figure out how I want the melody to go I just lay it down. The melody always comes first and then the lyrics almost write themselves. I'll just open my mouth, different stuff will come out, and I'll write down the lines as this happens. I'll look at them for a second and then I'll get the idea and I'll go, 'Ah, I know what this song's about.' I honestly don't know what a song is going to be about when I start writing it, but once I get the idea for it I'm like 'Oh, OK.' At that point I really have a direction, I start scratching off all of these different things, the lyrics get very in-depth, and away we go.
"I think a lot of stuff comes out of my subconscious. I don't usually have too much just sitting on my chest, although the song 'How You Remind Me' was an exception to that rule. I was really just pissed off at the girl I was dating at the time and I wanted to get some crap off my chest. That was the only time that's happened, and the order in which I did things was also different — I started by writing the lyrics, and then the guitar part and then the melody, so it kind of came out ass-backwards.
"In general, it all comes down to focus. If I start and get distracted, that song will never get finished. That's typically the way it works. I'll have a verse and a bridge, or I'll have the chorus and no verse, and it'll just sit there on tape. I've got 90 of them like that and they never get finished. So, I've come to realise that I need to unplug my 'phone, lock my door and go, go, go from start to finish in order to get this very focused piece of music that is definitely going to get a point across instead of sounding schizophrenic. You know, 'This sounds like a verse that he wrote two years ago and this sounds like a brand new chorus.' You can hear that stuff.
"I'm very very aware of when I'm struggling. The minute I am struggling with an idea and it's not flowing, I'll put my guitar down and go play video games, jump in the pool or do something else. Usually that means I can't go back to the song, either because I can't get the vibe back or because I'm not into it and it's just not floating my boat. I mean, I've thrown away more songs than most people have written in their entire lives. I'm really, really, critical of my music. I can completely step outside of it and say, 'Am I or am I not a fan of this?' Any guitar player knows that sitting there playing the same riff over and over and over again for 20 minutes is fun, but it's not fun to listen to. It's like golf — golf is a lot of fun to play, but it's no fun to f**king watch, and you have to be very, very aware of that. You've got to know when you're losing your audience, especially in this day and age when people are used to sucking in information from four different places at a hundred miles an hour. You have to keep your songwriting at the same pace and really keep some of the tension, and that's becoming more and more difficult to do.
"On the other hand, when a song really, really flows — when it's flying out of you at a hundred miles an hour, the lyrics are coming and you start getting that little iceball in your stomach and you're thinking, 'Ooh, this is good. Ooh, this is good, too,' — that's when you know you can't stop and you have to keep going because you're on to something."
Getting Into The Studio
For writing and demoing purposes, Kroeger has a recording setup in his home away from home: the bus in which he travels when Nickelback hit the road. Each of the band members has his own bus, and in Kroeger's case the middle section of his vehicle houses a Pro Tools rig, which he has only recently come to appreciate for its ease of use.
"I used to look at the screen behind my engineer and not have a f**king clue what he was doing," Kroeger admits. "Then I started using it and I went on the road for six months with the Pro Tools rig, and now it's like I've woken up and found that I can speak a different language. When I sit behind my engineer I know everything he's doing, and I'll be reaching over to the screen and going, 'No, no, no, not right there. Cut this off right here and move it over here, and grab this piece here and move it there... there we go.' Beforehand, I was always like 'This is my vision. I want the vocal part to come in backwards,' and I would just try to explain it to somebody else so that they could make it happen, whereas now I understand how it works and so it's a lot easier. Instead of me saying, 'How do you get that effect on the voice?' I know that it's a reverse reverb and how to achieve it on two-inch tape or how to achieve it on Pro Tools.
"I love the studio. It's fun just sitting around, getting stoned and listening to songs, and sitting there and wondering, 'Hmm, what would sound really cool right here?' If the toughest thing you've got to worry about is coming up with a really cool part for the bridge, then life ain't so bad."
Nickelback's modus operandi in the studio is to never perform as a band, but to record in layers, doing however many takes are required to perfect the drum part, for instance, before then doing the same with each of the other musical components: bass, guitars, vocals, harmonies, guitar solos, melody guitar over the top of the chorus, percussion and whatever else enters the mix.
"We know how the songs sound live, we've played them a billion times," Kroeger explains. "However, in the studio I've never done anything just live off the floor. Once you know how a song is supposed to sound, it's just like building a house, and that's the only way I've ever recorded. We lay down the foundation, the floor plan, everything else goes on top of it, and then we kind of sit back and say, 'What do we want to do here and what do we want to do here?'
"We've made lots of records with lots of mistakes on them, using takes that we didn't think were the best ones ones but which had a good feel to them, and all I ever do is wind up sitting around and going, 'Jesus, I wish we hadn't left that on there, it sounds like I'm singing flat here, and I wish we had done this.' We've made lots of records with loads of crap on them that I didn't really like, and now I'm in search of the perfect record. Even though we record our songs in layers, they have a live-off-the-floor feel to them, and I'm not a big fan of that. I like it when songs are completely airtight and sonically perfect, even though some people think that sucks the life out of the music.
"The perfect take always takes way too long to achieve. I mean, sure, we can all sit around and get the perfect drum take and the perfect bass take and the perfect guitar take and the perfect vocal take, but it's going to take you six months to make a record that it should have only taken you six weeks to make. At that point in time, all you're really doing is putting money in the pockets of the engineer, anybody else who's working by the hour or the day, and the owner of the studio."
Kroeger has no illusions about the idea of taking on the producer's role himself for one of Nickelback's records. "I'm smart enough to know that's dangerous," he remarks. "I could be missing out on a ton of different things that I never would have seen. Fresh perspective is always a good thing. Of course, I produced 'Hero' and that did extremely well — it was my third song to go to number one — but it wasn't a Nickelback thing. I mean, can you really imagine me telling my brother, 'No, no, don't play like that?' He would f**king freak! It doesn't matter how much experience I have as a producer, I'm still his little brother, and there's still going to be the part where he and I are like 'OK, well f**k you! Do you wanna go outside then?' With a solo project I have no problems being the producer, but Nickelback is a little bit of a more difficult beast to tame."
The Greenhouse Effect
The aforementioned Greenhouse facility in Vancouver is the invariable location of choice for both Kroeger and Nickelback. "It's a got a great vibe to it and it's completely haunted," he enthuses. "There are numerous producers and engineers who have had to work late by themselves in this great big room and have seen, heard, felt and smelled spirits in there. They've heard doors slamming, seen televisions turning on and off, and heard people walking up behind them with keys jingling while they're working and then turned around to see nobody there. I myself have personally never seen or experienced anything, although I have had the feeling of someone behind me when I've been going up the stairs.
"The room goes for about 500 Canadian bucks a day, and it's got a 48-channel SSL board that used to be in Little Mountain Studios and was used by Metallica, AC/DC, Aerosmith, The Scorpions, you name it. We've had studios that range from 2,000 to 2,500 US bucks a day offer us the same rates as Greenhouse to record there and we've said, 'Nah'. There's a reason we record there, and it's not entirely because of the price. Creativity seems to flow. At other studios there's sometimes a main room with three or four offshooting rooms and you're sitting around with a bunch of bands. Well, as soon as you put a bunch of bands together, there's instant competition and animosity — 'Oh, we're a better band than they are and we're going to make a better record than they are,' and you just start experiencing all these shitty feelings. That's not creative, that's competitive and negative. Greenhouse, on the other hand, has a separate studio that's just across a road, and it also has its own separate kitchen, its own entertainment room and a huge live room. Anytime you're sitting around and singing different harmonies, the creativity that comes out of that room for some stupid reason is just very comfortable and very productive."
The Business End
Kroeger's money-consciousness, hardly one of rockdom's most common attributes, is indicative of Nickelback's hands-on approach to the business side of making music. Having earned a small fortune from their endeavours thus far, Kroeger and his bandmates have every intention of holding onto it, and to this end they are fully involved in the management of their finances and marketing of their product.
"I understand how independent radio promotion works, I understand how the politics of everything works, and I know far too much about the business because I love paying attention to that side of things," Kroeger states. "The true artist will always go broke and the true businessman will never have good enough songs, so you have to be able to switch back and forth just like flipping on a switch. When I'm writing a song or when I'm Chad from Nickelback, then I have to wear one hat, and I have to wear various others when I'm Chad Kroeger who is co-owner of 604 Records or someone who's working on an independent project. At that point I want to know where the record is getting licensed, as well as absolutely every aspect of how we're going to deliver a song to the public and how we'll all get paid for doing so.
"That having been said, I never let the lines get blurry, because when I'm in creative mode I don't give a shit about the business. I don't care if the manager's calling and I don't care about any of that stuff, because right now I'm writing a song about a girl who went to her high school prom, gave birth to a baby on the bathroom floor, put it in a garbage can and then continued with her prom. When I'm writing about that I don't really give a f**k about money or business or anything else — I've got a cold chill down my spine and I'm trying to get something across musically. Once it's done and recorded, and I know that it's going to be on a soundtrack or whatever, and we start talking dollars and cents, then I'm wearing a completely different hat and I'm in a different mode."
As it happens, these days Chad Kroeger willingly chooses to wear any number of different hats, not least as a musician whose compositional talents lend themselves to projects both within and without his regular band. "I really have to find a place for all this material, because I'm not just a guy who writes songs for Nickelback. There's only so much of that I can do. I hate limitations and having someone go, 'It's too light,' or 'That sounds like a country song,' or 'It's way too heavy, we can't do that.' That's when I start getting on the horn.
"I'm going in so many different directions all the time. I've done the 604 Records thing, I've just done something with Santana, I did the 'Hero' thing, Nickelback just finished something with Kid Rock, and the entire next Nickelback record is written. I've started a development group that buys commercial properties and develops them into condos, I've just purchased two other companies with my father, we're in the middle of signing four different bands to 604 Records, and we're getting ready to go overseas and finish the Silver Side Up tour in Europe. So, I'm really stretched but I'm having a great time, and I wouldn't really give a shit if I woke up tomorrow and every newspaper and every television commentator was calling me the worst songwriter, or if I couldn't sell a CD, a T-shirt or a concert ticket for the rest of my life. I would just go on and do something else.
"I want to continue with Nickelback as long as people are interested in buying Nickelback records. If people are still interested in what I'm writing songs about, then I'll keep on doing that, because after all, that's what made Chad Kroeger who Chad Kroeger is and I haven't forgotten that. I will always be writing songs, whether I record them or somebody else does. I'm pretty sure I've already got another smash hit in my back pocket. If I didn't, then I guess I'd be worried. Who knows, we might release it and it might flop, but I still won't care because I already got to do it once. You know, I've written my 'Hotel California', I've written my 'Stairway To Heaven', and I did it when I was 27 years old, so I'm very happy."